INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Around Indianapolis, San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers and his magical touch against the Colts has been a hot topic.
Inside the team complex, Indy’s injury-riddled defense understands there’s a second mission that may be even more critical — stopping the Chargers’ suddenly stout ground game.
The chess match between two teams better known for their high-scoring acts and franchise quarterbacks could evolve into a good old-fashioned game of smashmouth football.
“Their quarterback makes it all go, his football IQ is off the charts and we have to be precise in what we do pre-snap,” Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said, sizing up the matchup against San Diego’s massive offensive line. “The running back is a legitimate ball carrier; we know running backs don’t get drafted as high as he was unless they’re really good.”
It’s not that Rivers is declining at age 34. In fact, he leads the AFC in passer rating (120.3).
But amid a spate of injuries that already has cost the Chargers (1-1) a playmaking receiver in Keenan Allen and a versatile running back in Danny Woodhead, the emergence of Melvin Gordon has forced defenses to play them more straight up.
At 152.5 yards per game, San Diego is No. 3 in the league in rushing and will try to open the season with three straight 100-yard games for the first time since 2006.
The Colts (0-2) aren’t alone in detecting a difference.
“He (Gordon) is really seeing things well and he’s making a lot of good cuts and a lot of hard, tough runs. I feel like his confidence has really come on in the last month or so,” Rivers said. “The guys up front, like I said, they are doing a heck of a job of giving him some creases. It has been great to be balanced these first two weeks.”
The Colts, meanwhile, continue to struggle with running the ball and stopping the run.
They have gone 52 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher, a streak they desperately want to end as Andrew Luck recovers from a sore throwing shoulder. And while the defense could get closer to full strength after a frustrating rash of injuries, they still have to find a way to shore up the NFL’s fourth-worst run unit.
If they don’t, Rivers could be rolling to another memorable day at Indy.
Here are some things to watch for Sunday:
LUCK WATCH: The injury to Luck forced Indy’s franchise quarterback to miss practice Wednesday and do limited work Thursday. Clearly, the offensive line must play better. After two games, Luck has been sacked seven times and taken 16 additional hits. At that pace, Luck will be hit 184 times this season — far too many for a team focused on protecting the QB.
BOSA UPDATE: Chargers rookie defensive end Joey Bosa practiced in pads for the first time this week, but still might not be ready to make his NFL debut because of a hamstring injury. Bosa missed all of training camp due to a nasty contract spat, then injured the hamstring after returning. The former Ohio State star hasn’t played since the Fiesta Bowl, when he was ejected in the first quarter for targeting against Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer.
THE RETURN: All week, the Colts have kept quiet about which defensive players may be back, but there are promising signs. Starting cornerback Vontae Davis (ankle) practiced for the first time since August. Patrick Robinson, the other starting cornerback, was cleared to go after missing last week’s game with a concussion. Safeties T.J. Green (sprained right knee) and Clayton Geathers (sore foot) also worked out, and defensive tackle Henry Anderson (knee) could be ready to play for the first time since last November. Stay tuned to see who actually gets on the field.
SOONER OR LATER: The Chargers have outscored their first two opponents by a combined 42-3 in the first half this season. Indy has been outscored 34-16 in the same two quarters. But the fourth quarter has been an entirely different story. Indianapolis has outscored its first opponents 29-24 over the final 15 minutes, while the Chargers have been outscored 37-6 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
SIBLING RIVALRY: Colts coach Chuck Pagano and Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano will meet for the second time in their current positions, setting up the sequel for this sibling rivalry. The younger brother, John, got the upper hand three years ago with a 19-9 victory on his home field. Chuck is hoping the home-field advantage will help even the score.